On Useful Feedback and Silencing the Inner Critic

December 9, 2022 § 14 Comments

By Camilla Sanderson

Thinking about the first workshop I took as a student in the Vermont College of Fine Arts MFA program, I feel compassion for my fellow writers. I didn’t know what I was doing, was all opinion and ego, and wasn’t even sure what ‘craft’ was exactly. It wasn’t so much that I suffered with bad feedback from others—I had the audacity back then to simply dismiss whatever didn’t resonate. But what I truly regret is not knowing how to give better feedback to my fellow writers.

It wasn’t until years later when I heard Suzanne Kingsbury, the founder of the Gateless Writing Academy say, “Writers need craft, not opinion,” that I had an epiphany. When feedback is opinion, I’ve noticed the tendency for inexperienced writers (women in particular) to change writing to please others. This is our cultural conditioning: to please others. But one of the most liberating aspects of writing is to speak one’s own truth. Conversely, when feedback focuses on craft, instead of opinion, we receive information that helps us to do exactly that: express our own truth while simultaneously strengthening and deepening the craft of our writing.

While immersed in writing and revising a first draft of a memoir in the VCFA MFA program, maybe I was just too inexperienced and overwhelmed to gain more awareness of craft elements, but I do think every writer is well served to understand how feedback can be most useful. In the Gateless Writing Academy, I learned how to focus my feedback on craft elements such as narrative arc, character development, lyrical sentences, conflict in story, scene and chapter construction, setting a reader in time and place, beginnings and desire, structure and scaffolding, description and details, juxtaposition, rhythm, etc.

In a Harvard Business Review article, “The Feedback Fallacy,” Marcus Buckingham and Ashley Goodall elucidate many myths surrounding the feedback process. “Research,” they say, “shows that people can’t reliably rate the performance of others. More than 50% of your rating of someone reflects your characteristics, not hers.” My own experience backed this up: in several MFA writing workshops, when a writer gave feedback––because it was so often opinion––it reflected more about the writer giving the feedback than about the writing being workshopped. Focusing on craft eliminates that kind of opinion.

Not being able to “reliably rate the performance of others” also points towards how the most effective feedback is not about judging something as good or bad, which is a binary tendency we’ve all be conditioned into simply from growing up in the West. 

Effective feedback involves shining the light on what is working. This is what opens the door to learning, and research in brain science backs this up: “Neuroscience shows that we grow most when people focus on our strengths.” In the HBR article they write, “focusing people on their shortcomings doesn’t enable learning; it impairs it.” In other words, “getting attention to our strengths from others catalyzes learning, whereas attention to our weaknesses smothers it.” 

These findings are opposite to the dominant patriarchal paradigm, which focuses on “what needs fixing,” resulting in a damaging kind of perfectionism that blocks our enjoyment of the writing process and feeds the pernicious Inner Critic.

Perhaps one of my most important learnings on the writer’s path has been about the Inner Critic. Maybe interfaith seminary first planted the seed: I am not my thoughts; I am the observing awareness behind my thoughts. This helps me to cultivate space and distance from my Inner Critic and not be the effect of it. It’s evident that the Gateless Writing Academy also recognizes how much the Inner Critic effects writers, as they dedicate the entire first month of seminars to learning what it is and how to cultivate space around it.

I find it fascinating though, that a part of me is addicted to wanting to know where other writers may find my writing lacking. It feels impossible to give up the desire: “Tell me where it needs fixing.” But perhaps this points more towards a desire for mastery and the difference between feedback from fellow writers versus an editor’s expertise—the latter being a completely different skillset.

I want my writing to get to the place where it feels like its singing. I’ve had that happen with cooking, where friends have told me the food is singing. But that is never a result of prior meals being critiqued or being told where they think I could do better. It happens when I trust my knowledge of the basic elements of cooking—perhaps akin to elements of craft in the practice of writing—and when I’ve achieved a level of mastery from many, many hours of practice.

Perhaps there’s also simply a mystical aspect to both writing and cooking—that “je ne sais quoi.” Maybe it’s a kind of alchemical energy, a kind of magic. And when we’re aligned with the force of that creative mystery, maybe that’s also when the writing will sing.

_____

Camilla Sanderson is the author of The Mini Book of Mindfulness (Hachette, 2016). You are invited to subscribe to her Substack newsletter where you may also read the first six serialized chapters of her forthcoming book, The Rising of the Divine Feminine and the Buddhist Monks Across the Road: A Memoir. Camilla also loves to laugh—particularly at her own ego, which she holds like a beloved pet, and by laughing at it when it wants to run the show—which it often does—she is endlessly amused.

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§ 14 Responses to On Useful Feedback and Silencing the Inner Critic

  • Pamela Nowell says:

    Camilla, that was wonderfully written. I could see this application in my own life as a ceramic teacher and artisan.
    Pam Nowell

    • camilla sanderson says:

      Hi Pam, thanks so much for reading and commenting and I’m happy to hear it’s helpful to you. Gateless feedback truly does have such enormous power in the creative process! ✨🌟💖🙏🕊

  • stacyeholden says:

    I have a tendency to go into writing groups filled with OPINIONS. I have been trying my utmost to reframe my commentary as questions that allow the writer to clarify the aim of his or her given piece. Good reminder in this post to keep thinking about how to provide helpful feedback.

    • camilla sanderson says:

      Hi Stacy, Thanks for reading and commenting. And yes, by shining the light on the *craft* in another’s writer’s work where there is strength, power, and beauty, it reinforces both to them and to ourselves what is working.

  • Flo Levia says:

    Wow! (Synopsized) “writers need feedback on the craft of writing, not opinion — which says more about the reader than the writing itself”. I could never put the feedback I was looking for on my writing into words, which you so beautifully did! I just knew when it was or wasn’t helpful. My favorite critic could point out what really moved her to the core (you would call it “singing”, Camilla!). She might also say — you were really brief here, and my guess is that your reader would love to know more juicy details — not a whole page that might interrupt the flow — just a sentence or 2 that more fully and lovingly paints a picture or video in the reader’s mind’s eye. I never felt “judged” by feedback like that. I would get excited about the possibilities and feel empowered! Now I have a better idea why. Good feedback encourages, without trying to change the author’s voice or individuality. Your comments will even help me in the editing of my own work, taking on a more objective “observer” self and studying the work for clarity, flow, feeling and impact. Thank you for writing this thoughtful piece!

    • camilla sanderson says:

      Hi Flo, thank you so much for your thoughtful response! I love that you have a “favorite critic” and you nail it with your writing about not feeling “judged.” That’s the difference. Useful feedback leaves you feeling “excited about the possibilities and feel[ing] empowered” and like you say – “without trying to change the author’s voice or individuality.” We all thrive on support and encouragement, and where the writing has beauty, power, and strength, by shining a light on its *craft*, it’s a win-win: it reinforces for the writer what’s working, and as the one giving feedback we’re teaching our own subconscious how craft works.

  • BJ says:

    This really resonates with me–especially as a writing teacher. So much more helpful for students to focus on the strengths in their writing. Thank you.

    • camilla sanderson says:

      Hi BJ, Thanks so much for reading and for letting me know that it resonates. I find it fascinating how much traction this article has received from my sharing it in the VCFA MFA Facebook group – perhaps we need more conversation in MFA programs about how to give feedback. One writer and writing teacher wrote, “following the guidelines offered by Felicia Rose Chavez in her book, The Anti-Racist Writing Workshop (e.g., no gag rule, student’s own craft-based questions set the opening terms for conversation) has made workshop discussions in my classes so much better for them and for me.”

      • BJ says:

        And beyond MFA programs and writing classes, it just makes sense to provide positive feedback about objective matters in so many areas of life! Thanks again.

  • I was trying to communicate this with a brand new writer. She wanted to tell her her piece was ” good” even ” great.” I could see it in her face I responded positively to her strengths–descriptive scenes, lucid dialogue– and gave on or two more basic craft pointers to focus on in her rewrite, but I couldn’t tell her the piece was the next noble prize winner. Then I encouraged to to keep going, write more.

    she slowly understood that there is more to writing than words on a page. I’m going to share your article with her.
    Great Piece my fellow alumni.

    • camilla sanderson says:

      Thanks so much for reading and commenting Ryder, and it’s fun to “see” you here in the Brevity community✨🌟💖🙏🕊😘

  • claire sullivan says:

    being a writer who spends a fair amount of time in writers’ groups giving feedback this post reminded me again how to speak about ‘what is strong/working’. I especially appreciate the list of craft elements such as narrative arc, character development, lyrical sentences, and more. Thank you.
    claire

    • camilla sanderson says:

      Hi Claire, Thank you so much for reading and letting me know it’s helpful. And yes, we all need these kinds of reminders every now and then.

  • Yes! To me the most satisfying part of writing is coming to the personal point of knowing I have written and rewritten something to a finished form that feels rich and true. Yes, also that craft must be learned but once the basics have been internalized we need to move beyond the opinions of others.

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